IS DENIS O’BRIEN trying to offload not only his Newstalk radio station but also his stake in Independent News & Media, the now-crumbling media empire he seized from the O’Reilly family seven years ago?
The latest cuts at INM – 23 editorial and eight commercial – are a sign of real crisis at the group and are unprecedented in scale. INM editors recall that an editorial budgetary cut of €1½m five years ago was a blood-and-stone effort – and that was when there was still a small amount of flesh to strip away. Now, they say, editorial resources are down to the bone and cuts of this magnitude will make it very difficult to produce the company’s newspapers.
While recent media coverage dwelled on restructuring costs, the actual editorial cut in mind is in the region of €6m-plus pa, a decision taken six months ago, but only sprung on the staff last month. And while the same reports initially spoke of voluntary redundancies, it was quickly made clear by chief executive Michael Doorly that they were to be compulsory – another unprecedented move.
An indication of the slash-and-burn strategy is that four of the eight staff photographers are to go and management has decided that they can’t target their desired personnel for exit if the redundancies are voluntary. But there is a view that another aspect to the strategy is the goal of rendering INM lean and relatively profitable in the short term to facilitate a sale.
O’Brien’s increasingly anonymous profile at INM is a sensible tactic given the whiff of scandal surrounding the group, but the absence of trusted yes-men at executive level indicates a withdrawal from the group. He must be wondering why he spent half a billion euro on shares that are now virtually worthless – money he will never claw back.
The effort to sell Newstalk, another O’Brien money sieve (€90m loans, also irrecoverable) to INM has been followed by further, heavy losses at the station amid abject failure to increase listenership. The exit last November of Paul Williams from the supposed flagship programme, Newstalk Breakfast, has been followed by an act of desperation with the station’s recruitment of presidential candidate, Trump-lite Peter Casey. Other stations in O’Brien’s Communicorp group, including Today FM, are profitable, but offloading Newstalk might only be possible as part of an overall sale of Communicorp.
O’Brien’s hugely expensive career as a media mogul was always a vanity project but, instead of improving or even protecting his image, it has cost him further reputational damage with investigations by High Court inspectors and the Data Protection Commission unlikely to fizzle out any time soon.
Is Denis the Menace preparing to depart stage, print and radio?